It is time for Hawaii’s police departments to move into the 21st Century with less secrecy as well as clearer policies and more accountability to the public.
That’s what key lawmakers say they will be urging this session as they introduce a record number of bills to modernize island police departments, which some critics say have become self-regulating fiefdoms.
Senate Public Safety chairman Will Espero says in the 16 years he has been a lawmaker he has never seen as many bills written with the single purpose of changing the current way Hawaii’s police departments do business.
I applaud the lawmakers’ efforts to try to change the longstanding “them versus us” attitude of police leadership here, especially at the Honolulu Police Department. Everyone will be helped if county police departments are transformed into modern law enforcement agencies, which welcome rather than shun community involvement.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The lawmakers’ focus on improving police practices comes after a particularly embarrassing year for HPD with Chief Louis Kealoha now under scrutiny by the FBI for his handling of a case involving a stolen mailbox at his former Kahala home.
Also, the unresolved police internal investigation into the strange actions of HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola, caught on videotape in a Waipahu restaurant punching his girlfriend to the ground and yet being chauffeured home in an allegedly drunken state by two police officers. The responding officers failed to arrest him or even file an incident report.
And there is the case of the Crime Reduction Unit officer caught on video in an Ala Moana area gaming room in October kicking a man in the face twice and throwing a stool at him while two other police officers stood by and watched. That case is under investigation by the FBI for possible civil rights violations.
Also, there is concern about Hawaii’s police officers’ use of lethal force.
At the most recent count, as Civil Beat’s Nick Grube reported, Hawaii’s police officers have killed at least 36 people in the last 20 years. During the same period, police and other Hawaii security officers injured at least 2,285 people seriously enough to send them to hospital emergency rooms.
Bills to be introduced this session have a common goal of upgrading police leadership through new policies to encourage more transparency and accountability.
“This kind of secrecy is not good for anyone.” — State Sen. Laura Thielen
State Sen. Laura Thielen has introduced a bill to end a stifling policy state lawmakers approved 20 years ago to allow police to keep secret the names of officers suspended for misconduct.
Civil Beat’s 2013 special report on police secrecy, “In the Name of the Law,” prompted legislation last year to require police to include more information in the annual reports they submit to lawmakers on police misconduct. The news outlet also went to court and won a favorable ruling requiring HPD to make public the disciplinary records of a dozen officers who had committed egregious acts of misconduct. That case has been appealed by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the police union.
Hawaii’s police officers are the only public employees in the state shielded from public scrutiny when they are suspended for wrongdoing.
“It would seen to make sense that all public employees be treated the same,” says Thielen.
After heavy lobbying last year by HPD and the police officers’ union, lawmakers killed a similar bill aiming to end Hawaii police officers’ special exemption from public scrutiny when they are suspended.
Current law prevents the public from knowing the name of a disciplined officer, even if the officer had been suspended multiple times, unless the officer has been fired.
The way the law is written now, even if police Sgt. Cachola and the two responding officers are eventually suspended for making a mockery of police regulations, we would never see a report on it or see their names in the annual legislative summary.
When I called HPD to ask about Cachola and the responding officers, all I was told is “the Cachola investigation is ongoing.”
It is important to publicize the names of officers who defy laws and regulations not just to say “gotcha, cop” but to make the offending officers think harder about their misconduct and to alert other officers about required conduct.
Thielen says it is extremely helpful to have information about police discipline to know if police officials are sanctioning officers for certain violations such as domestic violence as strictly as for other offenses for which police claim to have zero tolerance. It is the only way the public can find out if officers are getting off the hook lightly when they commit certain crimes.
She says that officers themselves often don’t know when someone has been disciplined for wrongdoing.
“Officers deserve to know. This kind of secrecy is not good for anyone,” she says.
Senate Public Safety chairman Espero has introduced a bill he thinks will help move all Hawaii law enforcement agencies into the current century.
The bill calls for a new statewide police standards board to set minimum training requirements and certify all of Hawaii’s law enforcement officers, including county police, harbor police and state sheriffs. The board would be empowered to revoke an officer’s certification for serious misconduct.
“It is important to have an independent review process for all law enforcement officers as well as to offer another place where community concerns can be heard.” — State Sen. Will Espero
Espero introduced a similar bill last year after a Civil Beat report pointed out that Hawaii is the only state without a standards board for law enforcement officers.
Espero says, “It is important to have an independent review process for all law enforcement officers as well as to offer another place where community concerns can be heard.”
Espero scoffs at criticism that a new police oversight board would bring too much state political involvement into county police departments. He says the police department is already politicized with the police union serving as a regular lobbying fixture at the Legislature. Also, county police commissions were created by the Legislature.
The Honolulu Police Commission, which is supposed to oversee HPD, has come under fire recently for lacking adequate tools and the willpower to effect serious change when there are citizen complaints or when police officers are accused of committing crimes.
County police commissions have the power to fire police chiefs, but county charters prohibit the commissions from getting involved with the day-to-day management of police officers.
Police commissions can investigate complaints of police misconduct, but Thielen says often they rely on the police department to do the investigating. And when a police commission investigation turns up police wrongdoing, the commission cannot discipline an officer. The police commission is empowered only to turn over the investigation results to the police chief.
“All four county police departments have ended up being self regulating,” says Thielen.
Currently, county mayors are prohibited by charter from firing police chiefs, but a bill introduced by Espero this year would give the mayors the authority to get rid of a bad police chief.
Women lawmakers and domestic violence advocates, including members of the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus, have spoken out against HPD’s handling of domestic violence.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Thielen has introduced a bill to strengthen county police commissions by changing their makeup. Currently, police commissioners are not required to have specific expertise. Thielen says without specific knowledge to review police matters, the commissions can end up heavily reliant on police departments for direction and information.
Thielen’s bill would require that three members of each county police commission have expertise in one of three specific fields. Commissions would have to include a citizen from the State Commission on the Status of Women, a citizen from the State Civil Rights Commission and a community expert in law enforcement.
Thielen also has a bill to make it easier for an abused family member or witness to domestic violence to get a police commission to launch an administrative investigation. Currently, a victim or a witness in a domestic violence case is required to submit their complaint in written form, sign it and have it notarized.
Thielen says victims and witnesses in domestic violence cases are often reluctant go through all the steps because of fear of retaliation.
Her bill calls for domestic violence victims and witnesses to be able to submit their complaints anonymously by phone or in written form, but without a signature or notarization.
Thielen says she hopes to end the session with laws for better police oversight and accountability.
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu says the police department will be on the lookout for the bills “but can’t comment because we haven’t seen them yet.”
Thielen says, “It would help if the police department formulated some ideas itself.”
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.